A Season in the Books

I’m sitting here watching the Pirates’ One-hundred-and-sixty-first game and contemplating how my baseball experiment went. I decided to give the Pittsburgh Pirates, as well as the entire sport of baseball, a chance to make me care. I, no doubt like many other Pittsburghers, lost interest in the Pirates as they mounted year after year of dismal, hopeless, losing seasons. This season, I watched baseball with an intent to learn and appreciate as much about it as I could.

I last went to a professional baseball game around 1993 or so. At Three Rivers Stadium. The only thing I remember about it is that soon after, every player I had a baseball card of had been traded or left the team. The Pirates were never on national television. There was no way to watch them or keep up with the team in the early internet days, aside from the score. And that was available in the newspaper. ((The Washington Post, in my case.)). And they kept losing. And they kept trading away anyone of actual value for prospects with potential value. These prospects either didn’t pan out, or were traded away to repeat the cycle. So the losing continued, and I just stopped caring.

My opinion was that the ownership didn’t seem to care. They got their brand new stadium, the best ballpark in the major leagues, and still couldn’t field a competitive team. They couldn’t build one and refused to buy one. ((Market size and spending in baseball is an article for another day.)) It was the always the most beautiful park in the game, at least until the first pitch was thrown.

I’d gone to a few Pirates games over the past two years. I went to two in 2009 while I was in town for the Stanley Cup Finals. The Pirates managed to split the games I went to, and then the Stanley cup made a surprise appearance at the third game, which I skipped. Oops. In 2010, I managed to make it out to another game, the second game after Pedro Alvarez was called up. Without going back to look at the box score, I can mention that my only memory of the game was winning free tickets to another game and replying, “Oh no…” because I was hoping for the water bottle. I was also wearing a Penguins shirt to the game, like many other fans.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it to Pittsburgh for any games this year, but I’ve watched almost every game. It wasn’t until mid-August, when any chance of a successful season was long gone, that I lost interest. On the whole, I think I’m pretty happy with the experience. My personal opinion of baseball changed. When you understand the sport, it’s much easier to watch and not get bored. There are, however, many points in a game where it does get a bit boring. The upside to all of this is that I’m no longer only waiting to see a home run. There was even a point where I contemplated becoming more of a fan of baseball in the long run than football. ((Due to the NFL’s constant rule changes in favor of high scoring offensive games at the expense of defense and its past. But that’s another article.))

One of the rules I had for myself was that I had to try and learn by watching the games, not reading a book or scavenging Wikipedia. This made figuring out the differences between the American League and the National League take a little longer, and at some point I did have to resort to Wikipedia. I’m also not sure on where I stand on the designated hitter debate either. I can see the argument for the historical basis of having a pitcher bat, especially with Babe Ruth being one of the all-time greats of baseball. Then again, so many pitchers are just horrendous at batting that I can see the argument for a designated hitter in the NL. I don’t know the answer to that, but what I do know is that deciding home field advantage in the World Series through the All-Star Game is moronic.

I learned a lot of the intricacies of baseball, and that makes me appreciate just how fine-tuned it is at the professional level. I know what a 1-6-3 double play is. I understand some of the strategy both on the field and in assembling a lineup. I appreciate hits a lot more now, and like I said earlier, I’m no longer just watching for a home run. The difficulty of getting a hit isn’t quite understood until watching at least thirty or forty games. With over a hundred years of history, various levels of basic and advanced statistics, and being distilled to its bare essentials, baseball is extremely formulaic and therefore doesn’t allow for many unexpected situations. The placement of the fielders, where to throw the ball in a certain situation, or when to bunt or steal is all planned out. So, while this makes it easier for a seasoned fan to know what to expect, it can be a little frustrating for a new fan. Especially sacrifice bunts. Those are infuriating.

One example showing I still have a long way to go is that when the announcers mentioned Monday’s game was at 289 pitches. I don’t really pay attention to pitches aside from starting pitcher’s limits being about 70. Obviously I haven’t watched enough baseball to know how far above normal that is, unlike hockey where I know a trap-playing team can limit the Penguins to about 20 shots or so if they’re executing right, otherwise the normal amount is 30 to 35. So, I’ve got something to pay more attention to next year.

Watching this entire season also confirmed some of my previous thoughts on baseball. For one, it’s way too slow. Batters step out of the box after every pitch. That’s fine. Then they go through their routine, adjusting their gloves, practicing a swing or two, tapping their cleats. Again, all well and dandy. Then the batter steps back in the box and waits. The pitcher takes their time deciding when to pitch. They want the balance of power back in their favor. So they make the batter wait, and wait, and wait some more. Then, if the batter feels that the pitcher has thrown off his rhythm, he can step back out of the box, repeating the entire song and dance. It’s pretentious and tedious. Some games it doesn’t happen much, while others seem to go on endlessly. This is one of the real annoying things about baseball. You can have “quick” three hour games. Rarely. But you can also have these never ending marathons of a game, stretching everything out to over four hours. And if the Red Sox and Yankees are playing each other, get ready for a four and a half hour romp.

Another problem is the refusal to add instant replay to the game on some misguided notion that it takes “the human element” out of the game. The human element will always be in the game. That’s why there’s players. If you’re going to allow instant replay for determining whether or not a home run is really a home run, then logically it should be used on scoring plays when there’s a good amount of controversy. Or, you know, when an umpire clearly makes a mistake. Nothing defined this more than the blown call by Jerry Meals in the marathon nineteen inning game between the Pirates and the braves in Atlanta. Meals took the longest game the Pirates had ever played and ended it early because he apparently had somewhere to be at two in the morning. The announcers couldn’t believe it. The players couldn’t believe it. Fans still can’t believe it. It’s one thing to get over a blown call ruining a perfect game. That amounts to losing being a trivia tidbit. It’s another thing to miss a call that changes the outcome of the game. I can see the argument against instant replay because of how the NFL runs it into the ground, but baseball can use that as the example to avoid. Scoring plays only, the end.

So, I’m generally happy with giving baseball a chance. Except for the actual outcome of the Pirates season. I thought this would be the year they finally turned the corner an ended the streak. This looked like the year where they would not only break .500, but would flirt with the playoffs. They were riding high in first place only two months ago. Then the nineteen inning disaster happened and the entire season went off the rails. Pedro Alvarez had a terrible year going from slump to injury, to bouncing back and forth between the majors and minors, never quite breaking out of the slump. Whether it was the team mishandling him or Alvarez not being able to bring himself out of it, all in all it ended up being a lost season for him. Nobody doubts that Alvarez has the potential to be a star power hitter. The problem is if he will realize that with the Pirates or a different team. I fear it will be the latter.

The Pirates are emulating the Penguins in that they’re creating a core of players that will carry the team, and will fill in missing pieces as they go along. Right now, it’s McCutchen, Walker, and Tabata. Alvarez was part of that core at the beginning of the season, but he’s questionable going forward. Maybe Presley can step in. Additionally, the Pirates are finally breaking the stereotype of the poor, small-market team and are pulling out all the stops to sign their draft picks. That really sealed it for me that the ownership now legitimately cares about winning and not just turning a profit. Maybe it was the sellout crowds from when the Pirates were rolling along and winning, maybe it was part of the plan all along, but it’s about time the Pirates didn’t cower from spending some money. That made the historic failure in the last third of the season a little bit easier to take.

The Pirates are a young team and have great potential. Whether they will realize that potential and achieve something remains to be seen, but it will be an absolute shame if they don’t. Whatever happens, the only question I really have for next year is if the streak will go to twenty.

NCAA Dominoes

Aside from hockey, I’m not a huge college sports junkie. That most likely has something to do with my sports preferences overall, though Boston College being mediocre since Matt Ryan left (and horrific this season) probably doesn’t help. However, it’s been interesting to watch the rounds of musical chairs the various college sports conferences have been going through for the last few years. I wasn’t paying much attention until I started reading rumors about the SEC poaching Virginia Tech or Florida State on the way to creating a behemoth superconference. With Miami wrapped in its own scandals, it looked like the ACC was on the verge of a collapse.

Then the domino toppled the other way.

The ACC made the surprise move of adding Pittsburgh and Syracuse from the Big East. I loved this just for the addition of Pittsburgh because now I’ll have some great intra-familial sports bragging to look forward to. ((That is, if BC ever decides to recover from its self-inflicted Spaz.)) In making the first big move and adding two academically-aligned colleges with good sports pedigrees and large television markets, the ACC bought itself a great deal of breathing room. Additionally, it dealt a heavy blow to the Big East, and it’s quite clear the schools getting left behind have a bitter taste in their mouths. The ACC probably won’t stand firm at fourteen teams, but it now has time to pursue the more desirable candidates to round out the conference at sixteen, which seems to be the magic number. It’ll be interesting to see who the ACC goes after and how the other conferences will react, but to look at why some schools are panicking, I want to turn back to hockey.

It’s interesting to note that these superconferences and the panic over them seemed to happen in college hockey first. Or at least that’s where everyone got to watch a worst-case-scenario play out. After Penn State was gifted a new arena and scholarships to field varsity men’s and women’s hockey teams, speculation began on if and when the Big 10 would form their own hockey “superconference.” ((It may be a superconference in terms of college hockey, but it pales in comparison to a football superconference.)) Despite various assurances that the officials involved would “do what was best for college hockey,” they did what was best for themselves. Namely, creating their own conference and adding to their television broadcast rights package.

Then the dominoes fell.

The CCHA effectively collapsed, unprepared to deal with change. It first lost Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State to the Big 10. Then Miami panicked and joined with an exodus of five teams from the WCHA to form the National College Hockey Conference. ((Enough acronyms yet?)) The WCHA invited four members of the CCHA to join, leaving Western Michigan and Notre Dame behind. These remaining two teams are being courted by the NCHC, although Notre Dame is rumored to be considering Hockey East as well.

The WCHA initially took a small, but manageable hit from the Big 10 conference, losing only Minnesota and Wisconsin. The crushing blow came when Colorado College, Denver, North Dakota, Nebraska-Omaha, and Minnesota-Duluth decided to leave and form the NCHC as their own superconference. This left five teams behind, none of which had won the national championship in the past thirty-five years. The WCHA invited the CCHA leftovers to join, but when the realignment actually occurs it will only be a shadow of its former self.

What remains to be seen is how the WCHA survives financially. The Big 10 and NCHC conferences are referred to as superconferences largely because they’re financially stable. The leftovers in the WCHA has previously survived on rivalries with the larger, more successful schools. There is uncertainty if these smaller schools will be able to field teams for long without the sustaining rivalry matchups, in addition to what will no doubt be a higher cost of travel with two Alaskan-based teams in the conference.

The eastern hockey conferences (Hockey East, ECAC, and Atlantic Hockey) were generally unaffected by the shuffling of the teams in the midwest. Hockey East has been a de-facto superconference for some time both on the ice and on the balance sheet, and that will continue. What they should do, however, is court Notre Dame for expansion, and that brings us back to the musical chairs in the football conferences.

Notre Dame’s hockey alignment will probably reflect where they go the rest of their sports. If the ACC manages to snag them, Notre Dame will probably join Hockey East. It’s the dream scenario for those two conferences. Notre Dame constantly touts their football independence, but that was with a stable Big East conference for the rest of their sports. That doesn’t exist anymore. The purpose of the football superconferences is to command a much larger broadcast rights contract. The ACC just added Pittsburgh and New York to its media footprint, and it also will be able to renegotiate its contract with ESPN to reflect that monetarily. Adding Notre Dame would cement the ACC as one of the premier conferences in college sports. The SEC would probably still hold the top spot since they seem to be able to rake in the championships every year, but the ACC would be in a good number two position. If Notre Dame chose to stay with the Big East, they’d have a much weaker conference with much less exposure. The ACC now can offer the entire eastern seaboard from Boston to Miami, and all the way out west to Pittsburgh for exposure. Madison Square Garden is now a potential host for the ACC basketball tournament. Army hosts games at Yankee Stadium for the foreseeable future, but now Syracuse could fill that option as well, especially after winning the Pinstripe Bowl there. If Notre Dame ends up joining one of the other conferences (or stays in the Big East), their hockey choice will probably be the NCHC. In this case, the ACC will probably look for another big name to join, but I don’t know what that would be. Connecticut and Rutgers seem like a backup plan in case the conference has to expand to sixteen.

The only certainty for now is that the dominos are falling.

Wikipedia Read of the Week: The Haka

Especially of note:

Ignoring the haka is a tactic sometimes used by opposing teams. Famously, the Australian rugby team did a warm up drill well away from the All Blacks during their 1996 Test Match in Wellington and went on to suffer their worst ever loss against the All Blacks (43-6). More recently, the Italian rugby team ignored the haka during a 2007 World Cup Pool Match, and the All Blacks then went on to beat them 76 – 14.

I wouldn’t ignore this article if I were you.


To Boldly Go…

Forty-five years ago today, Star Trek was broadcast, showing Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic vision of the future. And it struck a chord with the country and the world. Not just a whimsy byproduct of the space race era, Star Trek left a lasting impact on our culture. Equality, intelligence, and progress were ideas that were celebrated on the show and strived for in reality.

The influence of the series is also clear in a lot the technology we use today. Cell phones, tablet computers, GPS, video communications, computers that recognize and respond to voice commands, and even medical advances such as the MRI. People created these technological marvels in reality after being inspired by a Hollywood prop.

Look at the state of television today. Morally shallow reality shows and mindless procedurals dominate the broadcast airwaves. At best, we’re given something like Dollhouse‘s all-too-possible dystopia where corporations not only buy politicians, they buy people and the advancement of technology is ultimately to create weapons. Self-destruction and the misuse of science is also one of the running themes on Fringe.

Cable gives rise to some of the better shows on television, but these often offer pure escapism, back to America’s glory days in Mad Men or to realms of swords and dragons in Game of Thrones. There’s not much hope. There’s no goal to aspire to. It’s bleak and dark. It should be telling when two of the best shows set in the here-and-now feature a drug kingpin and a serial killer.

With the space program on hold and very little to look forward to elsewhere, optimism is much harder to come by these days. Forty-five years from now, what will anyone point to as their inspiration?

Hockey Guilty Pleasures

PuckDaddy is running a series of questionnaire interviews with hockey personalities, bloggers, and a few famous fans. ((I enjoyed John Buccigross’, Wil Wheaton’s, and Dave Dameshek’s responses in particular.)) I decided to ape it and answer them myself.

1. The Player You Most Love To Hate

What I hate are the showboaters. They’re rare in hockey, and for a reason. The players hate a showboater. Even teammates hate them. When you’re scored on, you’re mad at yourselves for not stopping it. When that player then skates around celebrating in some over the top fashion, you make him and his team the object of your anger. Your adrenaline rises and you promise to make them pay.

There’s a couple players that are guilty of this. They might be fun to watch in retrospect, but when it happens against your team, you really get steamed.

I’m not talking about a spinorama trick shot in the shootout. Honestly, that’s one area that deserves something you don’t always see. Just don’t follow it up with gloating.

2. Other Than Your Own, The Team You Can’t Help Rooting For

When the Penguins were in danger of moving, I had to consider what I would do if the worst case scenario came to pass. I wouldn’t have been able to root for the Wherever My-Team-In-Another-Citys. I looked around the league and legitimately could not see myself rooting for any other team. I was prepared to give up my hockey fandom if the Penguins were forced to go elsewhere.

Luckily that didn’t happen. As a result, if I ever root for another team, it’s usually one that is the underdog in a season. In 2008 it was the Chicago Blackhawks. Then they Chelsea Daggered themselves into overly annoying territory. After that, it was fun to see the Avalanche come back from the depths of irrelevance. After they regressed over the past year, I gave by the L. A. Kings a chance… until they rescued Mike Richards from Dry Island. But the Winnipeg Jets are back, so I’ll give them a shot this year.

3. Favorite Fight or Brawl of All-Time

This comes out as a three-way tie, if only for the fact that I witnessed the two of these firsthand. I was at the infamous four-overtime game between the Penguins and the Capitals, watching from high above in the nosebleeds when this happened:

The Penguins eventually won, of course. Hours later.

I also got to see Sidney Crosby’s first NHL fight in person while I was in Boston:

That made up for the Laraque vs. Chara “fight” that occurred earlier when they pretty much just grabbed each other and fell to the ice. ((Sidenote: HockeyFights.com is awesome. ))

And of course, the best fight from last season, Brent Johnson vs Rick DiPietro:

Instant classic.

4. The Hideous-Looking Hockey Jersey You Secretly Love The Most

The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim Wildwing jersey. Only Disney could do that to hockey.

I’d never wear that though, so if limited to that stipulation, I’d have to go with the good old California Golden Seals, and only the primarily green jersey at that. The yellow jersey is harsh on the eyes and the seafoam green variant should just be set on fire.

5. Your Favorite Hockey Cliché (terminology, traditions, announcer-speak, etc.)

Old time hockey.

It’s my last game, and I wanna play it straight. No more “Nail ’em.” No more “[Mess] with ’em.” That’s finished. I wanna win that championship tonight, but I wanna win it clean.

Old-time hockey, like when I got started, you know?

Toe Blake, Dit Clapper, Eddie Shore, those guys were the greats.

— Reggie Dunlop, Slap Shot

It’s lost a little bit of its appeal to me due to its commercialization as a clothing brand, but old time hockey has a certain meaning to any true fan. Though in the movie it referred to a clean style of play, today it’s a throwback to toughness, intimidation, and letting the players settle their scores on the ice.

6. The Injury You Couldn’t Stop Staring At (Non-Skate Lacerations Only)

Any concussion. I’ve had three and they’re not fun. It used to be part of hockey where players would just skate it off, but over the past few years, it’s becoming clear these have a major impact on players for the rest of their lives. ((It’s been a problem for a lot longer, but it’s just now being addressed within the sport. Before it was “just part of the game.”)) And not just in hockey, in football too. Concussions are the type of injury that nobody can clearly explain or treat, and as a result of the leagues learning how devastating multiple concussions can be later on in someone’s life, major changes are being made in hockey and football to try minimize the likelihood of the epidemics that have appeared recently.

7. Your Favorite Cheesy Hockey Reference in Popular Culture

Is there hockey in pop culture right now? I don’t think so. ((Unless you mean really bad Mike Myers movies.)) Thanks to the neutral zone trap, the lockout, and being ignored by the Worldwide Leader ((ESPN)), hockey isn’t a big part of pop culture right now.

Resorting to more nostalgic times, I’ll go with The Mighty Ducks. Flying V, knucklepuck, etc.

7a. Your Favorite Terrible Hockey Card Or Hockey Action Figure.

I still have this solely because of the four-overtime game against the Caps in ’96.

8. Finally, What’s The Thing You Secretly Respect Gary Bettman For The Most?

He doesn’t give up on trying to keep teams from moving. It worked in Pittsburgh, and I’m thankful for that. And now he’s doing the same for Phoenix and the Islanders. He tried his best in Atlanta, but wide enthusiasm and support was just never there, especially when having to compete with the the Falcons, Braves, and Hawks for attention.

Hope Renewed


So, here we are. The 100th game of the season. The Pirates are tied for first place in the division. They had three players in the All-Star Game. Pedro Alvarez is back from injury and the minor leagues. Tonight’s game is getting national exposure on ESPN. ((Unless it gets rained out.)) It’s been a roller coaster of a season and there’s still a long way to go.

I don’t think anyone expected the Pirates to be at the top of the division right now. I don’t think many even expected them to be this competitive. At the beginning of the season, I didn’t expect the Pirates to be a great team. I didn’t even think they’d be good. My guess for this year was that they’d be playing roughly .500 baseball and that it would come down to the wire towards the final handful of games for which side of center they’d end on. I was merely hoping they would be better than last year, and at best they might end this long, national pastime nightmare of eighteen consecutive losing seasons.

It turns out the Pirates are definitely good enough to end the streak. And they’re possibly good enough to make the playoffs. It’s already a season to remember just for the sheer turnaround that this team has accomplished. If they also end up winning the division, it would be legendary. I’ve watched almost all the games ((Playoff hockey still takes precedence.)) and I’d say that 95% of the time the Pirates are at least competitive in a game. The other 5% are the blowouts where something just seems to be wrong with the team and they can’t turn it around, be it not getting the bounces they need or just an utter lack of batting power. It’s not fun when the Pirates have to battle back if they’re down by four or more runs. It seems pretty difficult. But the Pirates have done so on a few occasions. Which means there’s rarely a time where I’ll stop watching because the situation is hopeless.

And that was the difference this team needed: hope. Clint Hurdle came in and gave the Pirates confidence and hope. Last year, under John Russell, you could see the team giving up when they fell behind in a game. Sometimes, even if it was only by a run, the air would just go out of the sails and the game was lost before it was over. The entire team seemed anemic. When the Pirates reached the top of the division earlier this year, one of the players was interviewed after the game and got asked how this team was so different than the previous years. He replied that they used to go out hoping to win a game, and now they go out and expect to win.

Hurdle said this was his mantra earlier in the season (( Some choice quotes by Hurdle are in this game preview.  You can tell he keeps a level head when it matters, but can fire the team up when he needs to.)) and, judging by their play on the field, the entire team has bought into it. They play games expecting to win. That is a huge change in the mindset of the team, and it’s evident that Hurdle was behind it all. For the first few months of the season, Hurdle had to keep repeating that .500 was not the ultimate goal of the team. He said he wasn’t concerned about it and that he wanted to keep going. And they did.

The offense has definitely improved from last year. Despite Pedro Alvarez having a bad start and then getting lost to injury, rehab, and the minor leagues, the Pirates have rolled along, bringing up replacement players who manage to contribute to scraping out wins. Now Pedro is back, and I think the Pirates will lean on that instead of making a big trade and giving up any prospects before they’re really ready to compete in the playoffs. Likewise what was supposed to be the glaring weakness that would sink the team, pitching, ended up being much better than last season as well. Sure there’s been some blown games, both late and early, but it seems like this year all the players know they can win. They know they have the talent. They know they can succeed.

The team buying into the mindset of expecting to win brought them success on the field. This gets the fans to buy into their team. There’s an entire generation of Pittsburghers that has had no reason to support the Pirates as they’ve watched stars been sold off for useless prospects, terrible draft picks that don’t come close to panning out, and multiple failed five-year plans that lead to nowhere. The Pirates are now turning that corner. Injuries don’t stop this team. Losing streaks don’t derail the season. All-Star snubs don’t phase the leaders. This is the year the Pirates regained their confidence, their dignity, and their fans.